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'Happiest Season' is a sweet, gay twist on the holiday rom-com 

click to enlarge Kristen Stewart and MacKenzie Davis in "Happiest Season."

PHOTO COURTESY HULU

Kristen Stewart and MacKenzie Davis in "Happiest Season."

It’s been a long, difficult year, and all current signs suggest that this winter is only going to get harder. So it’s little wonder that people have seemed particularly eager to dive into the holidays this year. It’s a time that many look forward to; who can blame them for deciding, “Why wait?”

With strict stay-at-home orders likely incoming, there’s an appeal to thinking of the experience as a nice, long hibernation as opposed to a quarantine. The winter holidays have always been about counteracting the darkest, coldest nights with some of the warmest and brightest light. Even if most of us won’t be able to spend the holidays with family, we can still enjoy some of the simple comforts of the season.

Hey, I’m Jewish and I still have a soft spot for the warmth and good cheer of a decent Christmas movie. So I was more than ready to wrap myself up in the cozy glow of holiday romantic comedy “Happiest Season,” directed and co-written by actress Clea DuVall (“But I’m a Cheerleader”).

The film stars Kristen Stewart and MacKenzie Davis (“Tully”) as longtime girlfriends Abby and Harper. They’ve been cohabiting for six months and, feeling inspired during a particularly festive outing one night, Harper invites Abby home for Christmas to meet her family for the first time.

It’s a sweet gesture, so Abby is willing to put aside her aversion to the holiday to make the trip with her partner. Seizing the opportunity and knowing her girlfriend’s love of the holiday, Abby even secretly decides she’s going to propose to Harper on Christmas morning.

But shortly before arriving at her family’s Pennsylvania McMansion, Harper drops a bombshell: Despite having told Abby that her family has been supportive of their relationship, not only do they not actually know that Abby’s her girlfriend, they don’t even know Harper is gay.

Instead, she’s told her family that Abby’s just her roommate, without family of her own to spend the holidays with. And just like that, a wrench is thrown into the couple’s up till now utterly merry romance.

Harper comes from a rich, upper-class family; her parents, Ted and Tipper (Victor Garber and the always fabulous Mary Steenburgen), are preoccupied with his father’s mayoral campaign. Her mother’s a perfectionist, perpetually in hostess mode, and Harper is quickly sucked back into the whirlwind.

Joining her on the ride is her uptight eldest sister Sloane (Alison Brie), and black sheep middle sister Jane (played by the film’s co-writer, comedian Mary Holland). Their mother incessantly prods them into helping maintain an appearance of the picture-perfect family, packaged and presented for broadest voter appeal.

The script’s occasional dips into broad comedy sometimes feel out of place in a film that seems happiest operating in a more low-key tenor. But DuVall’s script does such a good job showing us how terrified Harper is of showing any crack in the golden child facade she presents to her family, that she’s willing to risk alienating the most important person in her life.

Stewart and Davis strike the right tone, providing the film’s more natural, emotional center. Stewart is particularly good, playing Abby’s attempts to be understanding of her partner’s very real fear of how her conservative parents will react, with a growing frustration that her own feelings don’t seem to be a factor into Harper’s actions.

She attempts to sort through her conflicting feelings through frantic calls to her BFF John (Daniel Levy, very funny in a role that admittedly doesn’t stray too far from his star-making role on “Schitt’s Creek”). And Aubrey Plaza pops up in a few sharp and touching scenes as Harper’s ex, who understands what Abby’s going through a bit too well.

“Happiest Season” is pleasant and sweet, in many ways resembling the dozens of glossy Hallmark movies churned out by that channel each year. But DuVall gracefully finds ways for her film to claim its own space. Plus the cast is full of outright ringers, and the natural appeal of this collection of performers, all operating at peak charm, is endlessly enjoyable to watch.

While I can’t deny I’d hoped DuVall would find a way for her film to break free of the holiday and coming out movie tropes completely, there’s comfort to be found in the formula. She crafts a vibrant, gay twist on the conventional narrative that makes this “Happiest Season” a welcome addition to the holiday rom-com cannon.

“Happiest Season”
(PG-13), Directed by Clea Duvall
Now streaming on Hulu

Adam Lubitow is a freelance film critic for CITY. Feedback on this review can be directed to Rebecca Rafferty, CITY's arts & entertainment editor, at becca@rochester-citynews.com.

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